New York discovers old China flu remedy
It’s an ill wind that blows no good,” and this past winter has been one example of how misfortune for some can breed benefits for others.
The severe influenza season that ravaged the United States has proven to be a surprise bonanza for Shenzhen-based Kingworld Medicines Group. Its traditional cough syrup Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa has been flying off the shelves in New York.
Kingworld’s shares, traded in Hong Kong, also went flying. They soared nearly 25 percent on Monday to HK$1.50 (19 US cents) a share, after a Wall Street Journal report about the buying craze in the US.
The patent herbal remedy, made according to a century-old recipe, blends nearly 20 natural herbs in a loquat and honey base. The syrup is formulated to help nourish the lungs, break up phlegm and relieve coughing, asthma and sore throat. It is said to have been originally developed by a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) doctor seeking a remedy for his ailing mother.
The syrup costs no more than 30 yuan (US$4.76) for a 150ml bottle in Chinese mainland pharmacies, but it is being sold at US$13-70 through third parties on Amazon.
All of a sudden, everybody is talking about traditional Chinese medicine. The owner of a shop in New York’s Chinatown told the Wall Street Journal that “Chinese people have long known about it, but now Caucasian customers are coming in and asking for it.”
Alex Schweder, an architect and professor of design at the Pratt Institute, was one of the early users, according to the Journal report. After suffering from a cough for about 10 days, he said he felt better only 15 minutes after drinking Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa. It was recommended to him by his girlfriend, who first learned about the herbal supplement in Hong Kong nearly 30 years ago.
Word has spread quickly about the fast relief the syrup provides to those fighting flu symptoms, including celebrities like actor Matthew Modine, who stars in Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”
The phenomenon gives a big boost to traditional Chinese patent medicine companies that have been trying to crack lucrative overseas markets for dozens of years. Even though traditional Chinese remedies have long been available abroad, their sales were mostly confined to Chinese shops serving Chinese people.
Westerners have been slow to embrace traditional Chinese medicine because it espouses a different medical approach from Western medicines, according to Xu Min, associate chief pharmacist at Yueyang Hospital attached to the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
“But effectiveness in tackling disease is a common goal of both medicines and also an important factor in the choices made by ordinary people,” says Xu. “That may help explain why acupuncture and cupping have gained increasing popularity among foreigners much more quickly than herbal concoctions. And it may also help explain the sudden crazy demand for Pei Pa Koa in New York. All of them bring obvious fast relief.”
Some TCM practitioners have expressed concerns that Westerners may be using the syrup blindly, without appreciating its traditional roots or proper use. According to TCM principles, Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa works only on coughs caused by fengre, or “pathogenic wind and heat,” and on chronic coughs associated with asthma symptoms, Xu says.
“American users should feel lucky if the nature of their cough just happens to fit what Pei Pa Koa was developed to target,” says Xu.
And it is not a zero side-effect supplement that can be safely used for long periods. Kuandonghua, or coltsfoot, an ingredient in the syrup, has been found to contain toxic alkaloids that can damage the liver in prolonged use. The best advice is to limit use to two weeks or less.
Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa is sold over the counter in China, but it is classified as a health supplement in the US. While users in China can get advice about its use from their local physicians, most doctors in the US wouldn’t be familiar with the remedy since it has not been licensed by the Federal Drug Administration as a registered medicine.
There are more than 7,000 patent traditional Chinese medicines, but none has ever been approved by the US drug agency as a registered medicine, according to Xu.
The complicated chemical compositions of natural ingredients used in traditional Chinese medicine hinder that process. Applications for FDA licensing require precise identification of molecular makeup, which is hard to identify in natural plants.
Some Chinese traditional drugs have gained recognition for marketing by the United Nations. Most of them are remedies with single ingredients or relatively simple compounds.
Di’ao Xinxuekang capsules made by the Di’ao Group in Sichuan Province gained approval for the UN market in 2012. It uses an extract of huangshanyao, a relative of the yam family of flowering plants.
Danshen capsules made by the Tasly Group in Tianjin gained approval for the UN market in 2016. The remedy is made from only three herbs — danshen (red-rooted salvia), bingpian (borneol) and sanqi (pseudo-ginseng).
Compound Danshen Dripping Pills, made by the same company with the same recipe but in a different form, passed FDA Stage 3 clinical trials in 2016, almost 20 years after its application.
Jiang Zaifeng, a registered traditional medicine doctor, says domestic drugmakers need to standardize production and carefully monitor for contamination by agricultural products or heavy metal residue in natural plants they use. That should be done before pursuing overseas markets, he adds.
“Traditional Chinese medicine has helped protect the health of Chinese people for thousands of years, with classic and proven formulas,” Jiang says. “I am confident that can also help Westerners and eventually pass clinical trials. After all, having effective medicines that can treat people is the common goal of all medical practitioners.”
Chinese patent medicines popular overseas
Traditional Chinese patent medicine goes back more than 3,000 years ago, drawing on natural ingredients and formulated on ancient recipes. It covers an array of body malfunctions.
Some of these remedies have been gaining popularity overseas, where they are classified as health supplements.
Yunnan Baiyao aerosol spray
Yunnan Baiyao, or literally “white medicine from Yunnan,” is a patent drug that is said to stanch bleeding, relieve blood stagnation and inflammation, and accelerate healing. It can be taken either orally or used externally.
The formula was created by Qu Huanzhang in Yunnan Province in 1902. His descendents donated the formula, a guarded secret, to the Chinese government in 1955. The exact recipe has never been disclosed.
Huoxiang Zhengqi pills or liquid
The pills or liquid are prepared according to a TCM formula said to help induce sweating to reduce the effects of summer heat and humidity.
It also helps regulate the functions of the spleen and digestive tract.
The formula incorporates more than 10 ingredients, including huoxiang (giant hyssop), tuckahoe, orange peel, angelica root and licorice. It is for oral use only.
Pregnant women and children should consult a TCM doctor before using.
Mayinglong Musk Hemorrhoid Ointment Cream
The ointment cream, as its name suggests, is a remedy for piles. It helps relieve inflammation, improve blood circulation and remove necrotic tissue.
It can also be used as a surface remedy to reduce the pain of bowel movements.
Its main ingredients include musk, bezoar, pearl, calamine, borax and borneol.
Feng You Jing (wind oil essence)
It is an herbal liquid that helps cool the body and relieve dizziness, pain and itchiness. It is most commonly applied to insect bites.
The main ingredients include menthol, eucalyptus oil, ground clove, camphor and sesame oil.